Brow Beat

Here’s Exactly Why That Viral Trump Impression Is the Best Trump Impersonation Ever

A photo of James Austin Johnson against an American flag
James Austin Johnson. Photo illustration by Slate. Images via shrimpJAJ/Twitter and Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash.

For a public figure who takes up so much oxygen socially, culturally, and politically, Donald Trump has proved surprisingly hard to impersonate with any kind of potency. Jack-of-all-impressions Frank Caliendo took a weak stab at it back in 2015. By all accounts, Brendan Gleeson does an uncanny job in The Comey Rule of evoking Trump’s vocal and physical presence, though this is less an impersonation than a kind of eerie conjuring. There was Comedy Central’s short-lived The President Show, built around comedian Anthony Atamanuik and the suspect notion that, when people aren’t watching Trump, they’ll want to watch someone pretending to be Trump. Of course, the most prominent Trump impersonation is Alec Baldwin on SNL, but what started in 2016 as a compelling bit of celebrity-vs.-celebrity stuntcasting has devolved into a substandard series of tics, gimmicks, and squints.

Which is why, at this late date in Trump’s tenure, it’s surprising and revelatory to stumble on the social media videos of comedian James Austin Johnson. With his aggressively lo-fi takes on the president rambling through pop culture non sequiturs, Johnson has delivered the best Trump impression ever.

Johnson films himself with his phone, lying in bed or strolling some street in L.A., riffing extemporaneously on subjects like the real hero of Scooby Doo or how “Weird Al” Yankovic was very mean to Mr. Chamillionaire. While he makes no real effort to look like the president—no wig, no prosthetics, no pouting, no familiar hand gestures—it’s an uncannily accurate vocal impression. (If you go back to his earlier videos recorded in August, the extent to which he’s honed this act is impressive.) But in the tradition of the most iconic political impersonations, like, say, Dana Carvey doing George H.W. Bush or Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, Johnson doesn’t really strive to capture exactly how Trump looks and sounds. Instead, he strives to capture Trump. And, more than anyone who’s preceded him, he magically succeeds.

The key to Johnson’s Trump is his operatic aria of logorrheic randomness. His recent breakout video—his videos always come with all-caps titles written in the style of Drudge headlines, like “PRES TRUMP TODAY IN CALIF: ” ‘WEIRD AL’ WAS VERY MEAN TO MR. COOLIO!” — is Johnson’s pièce de hashtag résistance. Johnson starts as Trump marveling at the unlikely career of Weird Al (“I’ve never seen anybody who gets famous playing accordion … we don’t even know how it works … science doesn’t even know how it works”) before recounting how Weird Al “was very mean to Coolio, not very nice, Coolio was very upset with Mr. Weird Al” for doing a parody of “Gangster’s Paradise” called “Amish Paradise.” (Side note: Was Coolio actually upset with Mr. Weird Al over this? Apparently, Coolio resisted the idea of the parody at first, though the pair also made this appearance together. As befits a Trump impersonation, the veracity of the claims within is not paramount.)

Johnson definitely nails the cadence of Trump’s speech and a certain adenoidal quality in his voice—what Johnson’s described as “a hissy breathy croak in his throat.” But what’s notable about the impersonation is less what it achieves technically than what it casts aside—how stripped down it is, and how fundamentally smart. When critics of Trump describe him, they often focus on anger, on a mean and petty quality—all of which he’s definitely evinced. But Johnson’s Trump isn’t angry or mean or petty. He’s too busy holding court.

Johnson has said that while other impersonations tend to focus on “the wealthy Trump of the ’80s,” he specifically tries to do what he calls Rally Trump. “ ‘Rally Trump’ is all about love,” Johnson told Vice. “He’s just vamping and he’s building up to the ‘YMCA’ moment when he can dance for the crowd. He never had love as a child, and he’s gonna get it during this balls-to-the-wall-concert. It is all about this show.” This version of Trump is a rambler who’s fixated on celebrity, power, deals, and awards; who’s ready to unspool his theories on how the world works, no matter how misinformed or unhinged; and who’s pathologically mesmerized by the music of his own voice. In Johnson’s version, this translates to a genius type of absurdist soliloquy:

… with “Amish Paradise,” what they do, they take the music and they steal the whole thing, they just steal the music and they write new words and it’s a new song and everyone goes, “It’s so great how he writes new words to it,” and suddenly it’s funny, Best Comedy Album, it will never get best music, never get Best Album, breakout star, he’ll never do it, they’ll never give it to him, no CMAs, nothing, but people buy it, they like it, ’cause it’s a good product, we love what Weird Al does, Weird Al has originals, “Night Santa Went Crazy,” “Albuquerque,” but they’ll never like it as much as “White and Nerdy,” he was very mean to Mr. Chamillionaire …

To Trump fans, “Rally Trump” is often his most appealing incarnation. (“He doesn’t sound like a typical politician!”) To his foes, it’s the most exasperating. (“How … is this guy … the president?!?”) Johnson himself is no fan of Trump, but having come from a conservative Christian background, he likely has a better perspective than most impersonators on Trump’s essential appeal. That’s why Johnson’s impression, for all its improvisatory bagginess, feels so true on a molecular level. Absent policies and politics, or even righteous ire, he’s managed to bottle the essence of what makes Trump Trump. It’s the bluff rambling of a born huckster, soft-shoeing to keep the sale alive; the self-absorbed but weirdly mesmerizing meanderings of a well-worn cabaret act. It’s a quality that Johnson himself succinctly describes as “confidence without substance.” Honestly, have you encountered a better description of the Trump era than that?

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